Organizing, language and the web

If we want our unions to grow, we have to recruit thousands of new members. Many of those new members will not speak English as their native language. If we want to use the web as a tool for organizing, we have to build web pages in languages other than English.

That seems obvious, doesn’t it?
We know that there are around 6,000 spoken languages in the world. While it’s true that many of these are spoken only by small numbers of people, there are around 80 languages that are spoken by ten million people or more. A trade union movement that wants to reach workers need to speak the workers’ languages.
There was a time, once, when you could identify a country with a language. People in England spoke English, in France, French, and so on. Today, nearly every industrial country is multilingual. The US has millions of Spanish speakers, Canada has its French speaking population, Britain has huge populations of speakers of South Asian and Eastern European languages.
Yet trade unions in most countries continue to produce their websites in only one language. (Canada being the notable exception, where nearly all the national websites of unions are in both English and French.)
Even some of the important international websites of the labour movement, such as, which is supposed to be the official website of all the unions in the world, appear in English only. The website of the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions appears in only three languages (English, French and Spanish). Often the languages chosen by international union websites reflect the organization’s funding rather than the actual number of speakers — hence the rather large number of international union websites which include Swedish as one of a handful of languages.
A study done by a team headed by Art Shostak, the author of the book “Cyber Unions”, found that only one national union in the US — AFSCME — had created a Spanish language section of its website. (More recently, it appears that the UAW is about to launch such a Spanish language website as well.)
At a recent conference I attended in Chicago, the question came up as one local trade unionist pointed out that his union had created some pages on their website in Vietnamese and Bosnian.
A century ago, the IWW did pioneering work in multi-lingual trade union organising. Many of its greatest moments came in building coalitions of workers who spoke a wide range of languages — such as during the great Lawrence strike, when no two speakers at a rally would address the crowd in the same language.
At its peak, the Wobblies were producing newspapers in many different languages spoken by immigrants, thereby reaching out far beyond those skilled, English-speaking workers who were already organized in the craft unions of the AFL.
With their willingness to speak to workers in their own language, the respect they showed to different cultures and traditions, the Wobblies were able to reach out to Scandinavian mine workers in Minnesota and Italian textile workers in Massachusetts.
That tradition is reflected today on the IWW website which contains material in at least a dozen languages.
Maintaining trade union publications in more than one language can be incredibly expensive. Holding conferences in more than language are probably out of the question for all but the richest of unions.
But running a website in more than one language, particularly if volunteer translators can be found, is actually feasible.
To test this idea, we discussed at LabourStart the possibility in early 2001 of moving beyond an English-only global online news service.
Initially, Dutch and Norwegian sites were set up and a certain pattern began to emerge. These websites were maintained by committed activists who did not translate from the English, but instead maintained their own autonomous sites. Within a few months, seven other languages were added — and today LabourStart also appears in Spanish, French, Portuguese, Italian, Swedish, Turkish, and even Esperanto. (The last of these is actually made up of material translated from other languages, done by a team of volunteer translators in the U.K.)
Meanwhile, websites of much larger and better-funded bodies continue to appear in only one language, usually English.
How do unions move beyond single-language websites?
First, use volunteers. People are often eager to help get material out in their own languages, if only we ask them to do so.
Second, want it to happen. If you believe that all languages (and peoples) are of equal value, demonstrate this in your publications and websites.
Unions have been slow to follow LabourStart’s example, leaving open a gap for innovative unions that would dare to take up the challenge of creating websites that could be read by people for whom English is not their mother tongue.
In this, as in so many other things, the IWW can once again fill a gap and set an example.